After five and half years of teaching cheese and beverage pairing classes I've come to a startling conclusion: beer and cheese are better partners than wine and cheese.
This is counter-intuitive because the conventional wisdom holds that "what grows together goes together," and most of the world's best cheeses and wines come from France and Italy, but pairing wines and cheeses is tricky. Some white wines are so acidic that they obliterate the flavor of many cheeses. And some red wines have such subtle overtones that nearly any cheese will obscure them.
Here are three simple reasons that beers go better.
1. In general cheeses and beers speak at the same volume level on the palette.
2. Beer's carbonation makes an excellent foil for the creaminess and fat of most cheese.
3. The refreshing aspects of most beers offer a fine complement to the salt in many cheeses.
That said, you can't just pair any cheese with any beer and expect bliss. You need to consider the flavors in what you're drinking and what you're eating. Here's a primer on pairings that work.
Pilsners and Other Lagers
Pilsners and other lagers were the first styles of beer that I fell in love with. The finishes are full of two disparate flavors: light caramel sweetness and crisp celery bite. That combination never fails to dazzle my taste buds. Unless I'm just in the mood for something in particular, I'm likely to choose a classic German unfiltered lager like Mahr's as my beer of choice. Pairing them is easy and straightforward.
These are beers that companion well with the sharpness of a straightforward cheddar, the toffee-like finish of an aged gouda, or a cheese like Doddington that combines the best elements of both cheeses. This way both aspects of the beer's finish are properly addressed.
Brown, Amber, and Red Ales
Ales run the gamut of flavors from robust and bitter to almost cloyingly sweet. The best rule is that whatever direction your beer is running in, get a cheese that heads in the opposite direction. This way you'll achieve balance on your palette. So, if you have a beer with a pleasantly bitter finish, you'll want a cheese like a Comte that closes with an appealingly sweet overtone of roasted nuts. On the other hand, if you have an ale with a sweet finish, Gavroche Red Ale for instance, then opt for something with a more vegetal finish like a classic St. Nectaire, which is full of grassy and potato-ish flavors.
IPAs and Other Pale Ales
India Pale Ales and American Pale Ales like Sierra Nevada's classic version are among the hardest beers to pair with cheese. These hoppy brews are renowned for their biting finish with huge overtones of pine.
To balance this flavor, you need a cheese with a straightforward, concise flavor with clear, sweet overtones. The citrus-y finish of Andante Dairy's Etude, Saxony Creamery's Evalon or Cypress Grove Midnight Moon are an excellent bet.
It's this simple: saisons love cheese. The overwhelming majority of cheeses have a dominant characteristic, salt, fat, herbal, and vegetal overtones that match nicely with the gentle, fizzy and herbal sweetness of a saison. Some cheeses (like Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk) that are difficult to pair with many beers are a magnificent match for beers like Saison Dupont or Ommegang Hennepin.
No pairing can be done carelessly, but done right, great cheese and great beer are a great way to start the new year.
About the author: Martin Johnson runs The Joy of Cheese, a series of informal cheese tastings that take place at four New York City bars and the 92nd Street Y. He has worked in and around cheese for 26 years, and he spends his weekend afternoons and evenings on the counter of the Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn. He blogs at thejoyofcheese.wordpress.com